Open main menu

History of West Australia/John Richard Arthur Conolly


John Richard Arthur Conolly HOFWA.jpg
Photo by
Greenham & Evans.

OF the many strong advocates who have championed the cause of the Esperance, Norseman, and Dundas districts not one has stood to his guns more tenaciously than Mr. Conolly. From his first entering this colony he seems to have had that bright optimistic foresight which enables one to view through the ever-widening glass of futurity the embyro city heralded by the advent of commerce. Such an eye follows the River of Time, till— "Gone is the calm of the earlier shore, Now bordered by cities, and hoarse With a thousand cries ..... "

James Richard Arthur Conolly is a native of West Meath, Ireland, and was born in 1866. He is a son of a distinguished soldier, Colonel Conolly, V.C., of the Goldstream Guards. The gallant colonel won his distinction in the Crimea. Mr. Conolly's mother was the sister of the late Colonel Fred Burnaby, the dashing soldier, and author of the famous "Ride to Khiva," who was lost to the British Army in the battle of Abou-Klea. The subject of this sketch came to the colonies when eighteen years of age, and for several years followed the pastoral industry in the back blocks on the Bulloo and Cooper Rivers, eventually forsaking this for opal mining in North Queensland. Whilst engaged in the latter pursuit he heard a good deal about the rich auriferous deposits in Western Australia, and in May, 1893, he voyaged to this colony, and proceeded to Coolgardie, resolved to enlist in the sport of fortune as a prospector. He first went to Kurnalpi with the hundreds of others who suffered terribly from the pangs of thirst. His luck at the initial try was anything but satisfactory, and he followed up succeeding rushes without any sensational finds. While prospecting, with the assistance of camels, he crossed the 125 miles of waterless country between Coolgardie and Norseman, depending for his water supply on rain (caught in two rock holes), arriving at the latter place in time to celebrate the Christmas of 1894. He was much struck with the great possibilities of this district—a field situated only 130 miles from the sea-board, with every prospect of its becoming an important centre between the port of Esperance and the Coolgardie Goldfields. Returning to Coolgardie he determined to go to Albany, and thence to Esperance, with the object of making practical enquiries about that place. This was in the early part of 1894, and at that time there were only two small vessels—the ketch Eva and the topsail schooner Grace Darling—running between Albany and Esperance. Mr. Conolly embarked on the Eva, and very little examination of Esperance convinced him of the possibilities before it as the first place of call for steamers from the Eastern colonies laden with goldfields goods. The port at this time was practically unsettled—thirty residents—for although the town had been surveyed, few people had realised its great advantages in geographical position as a connecting link between the rising goldfields of Western Australia and the Eastern colonies. The oldest established house was the homestead station of Messrs. Dempster Brothers, managed by Mr. Bostock. The town was composed of one hotel, conducted by Mr. J. Purchas, a couple of stores, and a few small houses in different stages of construction. The two gentlemen who shared the honour of being the "oldest inhabitants" were Mr. Sinclair, the postmaster, and Mr. Ben. Hannet, both of whom had resided in Esperance some eighteen years. Mr. Conolly believed that Esperance must soon increase in size and population, and his expectations were soon realised. He thought of starting farming operations, with the idea, ultimately, of supplying produce to the Coolgardie fields. There was no very good agricultural land in the immediate vicinity of the town, but the many islands which assisted to form the harbour of Esperance had the reputation of being rich and fertile. Mr. Conolly at once established farms on these islands, which, after clearing, he planted with general produce, but principally onions and potatoes. Everything went well for a time, he engaged the ketches Swift and Ettie to run the export trade between Albany and the various ports to Eucla. The trade thrived, but in the severe storms of the winter of 1896 Mr. Conolly suffered very severe losses, for whilst the Swift was wrecked on the rocks of Twilight Cove, the Ettie went down in a raging gale. One would have thought this a heavy enough blow at once, but a few days after Mr. Conolly lost his yacht Fleet Wing while she was taking a picnic party out from Esperance. Through some mismanagement she was allowed to jib, and the seas breaking over her she foundered. Again the hand of misfortune was laid heavily on him, and fire completed the work which water had begun. Mr. Conolly sustained a heavy loss in the burning of his house, which contained many valued relics of home. Thus, with his little flotilla gone, and his abode consumed, he was compelled to abandon the work of the island farms until such time as the Government recognises the claims of Esperance as the harbour for the goldfields. While connected with Esperance Mr. Conolly showed a keen interest in the mines of the Dundas district, and made judicious investments, which stood by him in the hour of misfortune. His interests were large, not only in mining, but in real estate as well.

From the time of first seeing the Norseman district Mr. Conolly had remained very favourably impressed with it. Unlike Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie, the Norseman has suffered considerably from lack of capital and difficulties of transit, but, considering this great disadvantage, the field has made wonderful progress. Mr. Conolly's views of the Norseman are backed up by a practical knowledge of the field throughout its length and breadth. He says that though the returns of the field have not been as large as many other districts, yet there has been a steady improvement, resulting from the few small batteries which have been lately erected. He has no doubt as to the permanency of the place, and compares it to the Charters Towers field, with this important addition, that owing to the great area of the Dundas-Norseman field it is capable of far greater development than the Queensland mining centre. He asserts that the Norseman has remained to a certain extent in the background as a gold-producer because of the lack of machinery and proper crushing plants. The reefs, well-defined at all times, have been traced over a considerable area of country. Mr. Conolly augurs a bright future for the district, and bases his arguments on hard facts, and is able to conclusively show that the yields have been distinctly progressive. With the comparatively small combined plant of sixty-six head of stumpers, the output for the first five months of 1897 was 50 per cent. above that of the preceding year. The mines which he sets down as the best are the Desirable, the Three Colonies, Extended Princess Royal, and the Norseman Main Line, with the No. 1 North Norseman, the Norseman Gold Mines, United Scotchman, and the St. Agnes. Going south, the Mount Benson, the Break of Day, the Albemarle, and the Hill View are leading features of a great and promising auriferous belt at present in course of development. Mr. Conolly's opinions about the future of Esperance may be summed up in these words:—"The port of Esperance at the present moment is not in high favour with the Government, but I think it will yet be found, by careful and politic management, that Esperance will not in any way menace Fremantle, but on the contrary will open up the valuable resources of a country beyond the scope of the chief port. Esperance must be the goldfields port for the Eastern colonies, and to endeavour to carry the Norseman trade 1000 miles round by Fremantle, while it can be delivered in 130 miles through Esperance, would be a direct injury to the fields, and a most impolitic action for any Government to attempt." He affirms this with that earnestness which means conviction.

In returning Mr. Conolly as the first member of the House of Assembly for the Dundas constituency in May, 1897, the electors put the seal of approval on a man who wishes to work might and main for their interests. Be has been prominent in all public matters in Esperance and Norseman, working quietly, but with untiring perseverance for the best interests of both goldfield and port. No movement of any note has taken place there without his being a leading figure in it. Mr. Conolly has bright conversational powers, and is a convincing speaker. As a prominent member of the goldfields party he will be watched with interest in the Legislature. It were well if the Houses of Legislation contained more men of Mr. Conolly's earnest type.